From the Swiss Alps to Saskatoon: Q&A with On co-founder Olivier Bernhard

Spring 2021 marks the four-year anniversary of Brainsport carrying On shoes.

On got its start in Zurich, Switzerland in 2010 and its shoes are now on the feet of millions of runners in more than 50 countries — including many in Saskatoon. In honour of the company’s anniversary of being stocked in Brainsport, On co-founder Olivier Bernhard answered some questions about the company and his products for the Brainsport Times.

BT: Before you started On, you were an elite endurance athlete and would have gone through a lot of shoes. What surprised you the most when you transitioned from simply wearing shoes to also designing and manufacturing them?

OB: When I was competing, I was disappointed with the lack of innovation happening in running shoes at the time. I wanted to find a shoe that not only used the best materials, but delivered a completely new feeling to running. For the very first On prototype, I had more or less glued Cloud elements to the outsole of a traditional racing flat. Of course, they didn’t hold up when I took them for a spin, but they created a sensation that led to a whole new approach for designing running shoes — rethinking the experience of running through an engineered solution. That unique engineering allows for vertical and horizontal cushioning and is now called CloudTec. The hollow pods are what makes running in our shoes unlike any other. With my team, I now design the product that I would have wanted to train and compete with during my elite career. I’m deeply grateful to have the opportunity to apply my background and passion for running to what I do every day.

BT: How easy or difficult has it been for On to break into the Canadian market?

OB: It is a challenge introducing a brand to a new market, but the heavy lifting is much less cumbersome with product that delivers on its promise. To try On is to love On, which has made all the difference in breaking into the Canadian market. Thanks to our retail partners, like Brainsport, On is gaining significant momentum in Canada.

On co-founder Olivier Bernhard (Provided photo)

BT: On shoes were developed in the Swiss Alps. What does that mean for people running on the Canadian Prairies?

OB: We happen to live in the perfect testing ground for high-performance gear. Our products are designed to withstand the demands of the Swiss Alps while ultimately delivering technical performance and comfort to our global fanbase. On’s expanding product range caters to all elements and terrain. From running in the city to running an ultramarathon or completing an at-home workout, there’s an On for everyone.

BT: The COVID-19 pandemic has created a running boom fuelled by people who turned to running or got back into the sport because it was one of the few outlets available for staying active, keeping busy and letting off steam. What has this meant for On?

OB: This past year, we’ve had the opportunity to welcome and introduce many new and returning runners to On. I’m incredibly proud of our global team for putting their communities first, supporting our run specialty retailers, and providing footwear to the frontline workers who have worked tirelessly to deliver us into the hopeful prospects of today.

Perhaps our biggest milestone of the past year happened in New York with the opening of our flagship store, On NYC. We aimed to create an explorative and tech-driven experience that presses on towards the future and possibilities of the retail experience.

BT: Ever since Eliud Kipchoge’s Breaking 2 attempt in 2017, the conversation around shoes has shifted and shoe companies seem to be engaged in an arms race to make the fastest product. How has that atmosphere affected decisions at On?

OB: It’s invigorating to channel our athlete spirit in the race towards building the best products for the global running community. We’re proud to contribute to this fast-paced progress and inspire with our unique innovation and design.

On co-founder Olivier Bernhard (Provided photo)

BT: What new or upcoming On products are you most excited about right now?

OB: I’m looking forward to launching Cyclon at the end of this year — the world’s first subscription service to ensure circularity in sportswear. This program will equip our community with the latest running technology made with fully recyclable materials, complete with the means to return after-life product for reuse. I’m proud of the milestones On has achieved in the drive towards sustainable solutions and look forward to taking humble steps forward in making the greatest positive impact.

BT: What is your favourite On shoe?

OB: At the moment, the Cloudultra.